Dutch told to slash gas extraction by half to stop earthquakes

Milieudefensie and Groningen residents dump fracking earthquake rubble in front of the Ministry of Economic Affairs in The Hague, 26 Oct 2017
Milieudefensie and Groningen residents dump fracking earthquake rubble in front of the Ministry of Economic Affairs in The Hague, 26 Oct 2017Photo: @milieudefensie / Twitter

Gas extraction in Groningen must be halved to a maximum of 12 billion cubic meters a year in order to stop fracking earthquakes and guarantee safety in the province, the state supervisor on mines SoDM said in a recommendation to Minister Eric Wiebes of Economic Affairs and Climate on Thursday. The Loppersum clusters must close immediately, the SoDM said, RTL Nieuws reports.

Last year NAM extracted 23.90 billion cubic meters of gas in the province. The maximum was then set at 24 billion cubic meters. In 2012 already the SoDM concluded that an extraction limit of 12 billion cubic meters would in time result in "virtually no earthquakes with a magnitude of more than 1.5", according to the broadcaster. 

In this assessment, the SoDM did not only consider the safety risks and damage caused by fracking earthquakes, but also the impact the earthquakes have on people living in the area. "The earthquakes cause feelings of insecurity and fear and a decline in value of buildings and land", the supervisor wrote. 

The previous government was "ruthless" when it decided to not decrease gas extraction to 12 billion cubic meters when the SoDM advised doing so in 2012, former inspector general at the SoDM Jan de Jong said to broadcaster NOS on Thursday. Instead the government increased gas production, thereby consciously taking a lot of risk that could have resulted in people dying, he said. 

"The highest authority we have in the Netherlands for this, the State Supervision of Mines, gave an advice: go back as much as possible. The government decided to take no notice of it. On the contrary: they even produced more. And that despite the fact that all parties already agreed that if you produce more, there will be more and stronger quakes", De Jong said to NOS. "A big risk was taken and therefore I find it a ruthless decision. There could have been quakes between strength 4 and 5. People could have died."

This new advice from the SoDM comes after an earthquake at Zeerijp with a 3.4 magnitude early in January, the strongest earthquake in Groningen in five years.

Reducing gas extraction will "eventually have consequences for the supply of gas to companies and households", the SoDM said on Thursday. But added: "It is not the role of the SoDM, as supervisor on the safety of energy production, to take this into account."

The Gasunie recently performed a so-called supply assurance study using temperature as a barometer, according to RTL. The organization concluded that 12 billion cubic meters of gas is not sufficient to guarantee supply. In a mild year, the Netherlands needs 14 billion cubic meters of gas, and in an extremely cold year as much as 27 billion cubic meters. If temperature-dependent production was used in the Netherlands now, the total volume of gas needed for this gas year - October 2017 to October 2018 - would be between 19.5 and 21 billion cubic meters, according to the study. 

The decision on whether or not to cut gas production in half, lies with Minister Wiebes. In a first reaction, NAM said that the company "has taken note of" the SoDM's advice and Gasunie's study. "It is now up to the Minister to decide on the measures to be taken on the basis of all recommendations of the past few weeks. We will prepare ourselves for this."

Earlier this week NAM announced that it has 18 billion euros available to compensate for damage caused by gas extraction. On Wednesday afternoon, Wiebes announced that a new, temporary office that will deal with earthquake damage will be operational from March 19th. He emphasized that this is really a new phase in dealing with damages caused by gas production. "It was a private matter for years, a company took gas from the ground and the Groningers suffered for it. That looked like a logical situation, but that is no longer the case. We now enter the public law system. Groningers enjoy legal protection. They can object and appeal", he said according to RTV Noord. 

On Thursday dozens of Groningen farmers are traveling to The Hague by tractor to demonstrate at a debate on gas extraction in their province. They demand that the involved companies take responsibility caused by fracking earthquakes and they want to see guarantees that they will be compensated on paper.